The buddha with mood swings

I stand in the beautiful long corridor in Ananda temple and look at the huge happy smile on the face of the golden 10 metre high buddha. As I walk closer to him, I notice his expression has changed. The big happy smile is now a mindful expression, as though he is gently teaching me. As I walk right up to his base and look up, his expression is now sad. This buddha really has mood swings – or maybe I’ve just upset him?

It’s quite a freaky experience watching the expression change the first time. I see lots of people doing a double-take and then going back to the start and trying it again (and I do too). It’s a deliberate design feature on this buddha statue from the 12th century, and it’s pretty cool. I’m in Ananda temple in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s an unusual temple in a number of ways. It is built in the shape of a symmetrical cross, with four buddha statues in the middle, one at the end of each arm of the cross. In fact the North and South corridors both have identical buddhas with changing expressions, the buddhas in the east and west wings are many centuries newer and their expression does not change. There are also hundreds of other buddhas in little alcoves all over it’s walls. The only difference between the two original buddhas is that one is artificially lit, to make the statue shine a vivid gold, while the other is naturally lit through the temple design, and looks a much subtler colour. I definitely prefer the natural look.

A happy expression, lit naturally.


A mindful expression, lit naturally.


A sad expression, lit naturally.


A happy expression, lit artificially.


A mindful expression, lit artificially.


A sad expression, lit artificially.

Blissful Ballooning Over Beautiful Bagan

It is hard to imagine too many places that are better suited to a sunrise hot air balloon trip. In Bagan the 2200 temples and pagodas are spread across a small plain in the elbow of the Irrawaddy river. In the dry months it is flat, warm and calm.

The flight path starts to the north and had us float through old Bagan to land in the south. The balloon pilot keeps circling the basket around,without disturbing the balloon’s overall direction, so we all get to see in all directions in turn. We go up to 1.7 kms, and down to barely brushing the tops of palms.

 In the east, the sun is rising in a blaze of colour, and anything in front of it is silhouetted, but most of the temples are on, or to the west of, the flight path, so there wasn’t much to see directly into the sunrise.

 Look towards the west and the east facing sides of temples and pagodas are ablaze in the warmth of the new sun.

 Look to the North and all the home fires combine into dreamy hazy snakes of smoke across the landscape, and North East gave lovely pink and brown tones to the haze.

 Look south and it looks like a clear and sunny day, basking in a golden glow.


And to round it out, I have added a few shots of Bagan at sunset from a temple top.

Angkor temples without the crowds?

Its the second day of the new year festivities so we allow ourselves a sleep-in – departing for the far flung temples at the advanced hour of 7am. All the guide books talk about staying extra days, getting outside the “inner circle” of temples and escaping the crowds, and that is exactly what we are planning for today. With hindsight, we should’ve taken the guide books with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t matter because we end up with a nice twist on the crowds. I should know by now that when popular guidebooks say “go here, get off the beaten track” then lots of other people will be doing the same thing. And the crowds are definitely here, car loads and bus loads at every temple today, but for once we are completely outnumbered by the locals on holiday and its a great feeling. Because its the three day national New Year holiday, Cambodian families have gathered from across the country and are visiting their own history and temples in great numbers, often spreading blankets to have huge extended family picnics under the trees. And we, the hot sweaty fly-in tourists, are in the minority for a change, which makes the temples feel much less like open air museums than usual .
Cambodia temples

We make six temple stops today, which is a bit ambitious with our late start for the day, so we are a wee bit exhausted (heat stroke anyone?) by the last couple. Here’s my highlights of the day.

Kbal Spean – The River of a Thousand Lingas.

This site is an interesting change from the usual temples. It a 1.5km walk up through the valley to the riverbed at the top – its a gentle incline but made harder for unco-ordinated people like me by  being a bit of a scramble over a rocky mountain goat track in parts. I am a bit disappointed when I first see the carvings at the top, as they mainly look like a cobblestoned path. Duh! I eventually realise that these are the remaining bases of the thousand lingas (phallic symbols), and by the size of the bases they must’ve been impressively sized lingas. Now I guess its a case of a thousand eunuchs. We beat the crowds to the top and as we head back down, there are many families on the way up , easily carrying vast picnic supplies, politely laughing at the sweat running down our faces. We realise our driver may be a bit worn out from his New Years festivities when it takes us fifteen minutes to track him down fast asleep in a hammock.
Cambodia temples

Banteay Srei.

A truly beautiful small temple, Banteay Srei has the most intricate carvings, the stone a dusky rose red. Its also incredibly popular and incredibly busy, its a continuous snake of people around the paths. However the layout makes it easy to get up close to all the beautiful carvings and get an uninterrupted view, negating any impact of the crowds. The lack of shade is more of a problem, it’s still early morning and we are cooking! We finally find shade behind the temple, next to a local band playing under a tree. They are a poignant reminder of the recent past, as the band is a group of land mine victims and this is how they support themselves and other victims (and since the music is rather refreshing on a hot day, its not that hard for them to sell their CDs either.)

Cambodia temples

The Temple of Ta Som.

Back closer to the Angkor Thom complex we stop for a wander around Ta Som, a temple mainly known for its general state of dis-repair, and its classic strangler fig tree wrapped around an ancient ornate stone gate. All sensible people have retreated out of the midday sun by now, leaving a much emptier temple site to explore. I think I am on about my fourth litre of water by this stage. What I love about Ta Som is that it looks so decrepit, the stones toppling off each other and arches looking like they barely hold together. Its not an overgrown, ‘Indiana Jones slash your way through the undergrowth’ kind of environment – most of the vegetation has been cleared out, except for some bigger trees providing a nice level of shade, and the famous strangler fig of course, although it’s had some judicious pruning as well. But that does show off the fragility of the stonework quite well, so its a good compromise. And this temple has kids playing around today, which adds a nice sense of movement and colour.

We don’t last much longer after Ta Som, very happy with what we’ve seen, too worn out by heat and humidity to give the remaining temples their due, it’s definitely time to head back to a cool pool.

Return to the temples of Angkor Thom – part 2

Surrounded by hundreds of mysterious serene faces carved on massive stone towers, scrambling through the rubble of a temple whose walls look like they would have fallen over if they were not intertwined with the massive root systems of ancient trees, these are the memories of the Cambodian temples that I loved the most on my first visit. Sure, Angkor Wat is the star attraction, and it is breathtaking and impressive and unmissable, but it is a couple of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom and nearby that worked their charm on me the most, and I am looking forward to seeing them again five years later.

Bayon, Cambodia
The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon

Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads all smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa -I am told they are all images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, although some claim the faces also have a passing resemblence to the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur including the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII. To me however, each head, each smile, seems subtly different. I find it easy to start attributing each of them a personality, a story to fit their expression. They adorn the four sides of all fifty four towers on the third and top tier of the pyramid, facing due north, south, east and west.

The bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three layers of big blocks of stone, with quite a few fallen to the ground around it. Its only on close inspection that the walls on the outside and on the first level reveal a series of bas relief carvings to rival those of Angkor,depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus. Its easy to miss these in the rush to the top to see the heads, but it is well worth stopping and circling these picture stories for a while. Even for these levels, if I look up I find it very hard to spot the carved heads just above. I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the top level, and finally find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile. Some are in good condition, some very worn, some have parts missing, so every direction I look is a different vista, and I find it almost meditiative to circle around and around the top tier, watching different faces spring in and out of view while I circle. The effect of the light at different times of the day here is quite compelling, as different faces and profiles are highlighted as the sun moves through the day. My favourite is first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, when the early morning light throws some carvings into bright light and some into dark contract.
Bayon, Cambodia

This is how I saw them the first time. On this trip I will visit them twice. First I see them about 9am, after seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This seems early but already the sun is higher and harder, reducing the early morning contrast. Its also a lot more crowded, as many people come here after their Angkor Wat sunrise, whereas the previous couple of hours are much less crowded, more tranquil. Two days later I return at 7am, just after dawn, but the clouds roll in for the first day of the rainy season, so there is no soft dawn light picking out faces, its a much darker and sterner picture today.

Ta Prohm – The myth of the overgrown temple held together by the roots of the trees growing over it.

Maybe not completely a myth, but also not completely true. My other favourite temple is a photographers dream (except for the crowds), and any quick google search will reveal thousands of atmospheric black and white photos of old trees towering over a tumble of old stone blocks on weird angles, tied together by hundreds of exposed tree roots. But if you arrive thinking it will look like you have just stumbled upon a long lost temple hidden in the bush, you will be disappointed. It has been cleared of much of the growth, leaving in place just the biggest and most spectacular mergers of trees and ruins, making it more accessible, and no doubt easier to photograph (except for the crowds). In spite of that, it is still fantastic to wander through, finding odd corners with no apparent restoration work or clearing out at all, and yes, fantastic to photograph. I may have mentioned the crowds – its not only my favourite, it is a fav of just about every visitor to the area, and its quite a small temple compared to its neighbours, so I just have to grin and bear it, its popular for a reason. Its a great challenge of both my photography and patience to frame up my shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot, looking as though the place is actually deserted – its not unusual for it to take me ten minutes or more to grab one shot.

Ta Phrom, Cambodia
Five years ago I remember there being a boardwalk path through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds (but when scrambling around it was easy to miss the sign), where we could feel a real sense of possible risk and danger as we crawled over and under precariously leaning structures. I notice a marked difference this time. There is now a very extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, taking away the risk of twisting your ankle or having stones fall on your head, but also handling the volume of visitors better. As part of this, viewing platforms have been built for most of the iconic ruins/trees vistas, some even have roped off queueing areas to ensure everyone gets to the front of the line and gets a clear view. Remaining dangerous areas are completely roped and chained off, no chance to claim “I didn’t see the sign”! This is both fantastic progress and completely ruining my ability to put my superior ‘photo-grabbing” skills to the test. Using the walkways to navigate the site, I also notice that many of the walls and trees have substantial support structures built behind them, to shore them up without having to go to a full renovation. I also see one wall which had completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree above it looking very unstable and ready to topple over itself, which reinforces to me just how hard it is to walk the fine line of keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was. It looks like they are doing a fine job of balancing all those concerns, I hope I get to go and visit again in the next five years and see what else has changed.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?